Exploring Point of View

Photo by Burning Image. CC Attribution License

Of all the concepts or topics that we might teach about in the art classroom, “point of view” has always been a favorite of mine. In a world becoming splintered by opposing cultural, political, and religious points of view, fostering students’ understanding and respect for differing points of view is increasingly critical if we are to remain a civil, democratic society.

When considering works of art and photographs, “point of view” can refer to the place or physical position from which the artist or viewer looks at a subject (e.g, eye-level or birds-eye view). It can also refer to an attitude or opinion the artist is expressing about the subject (e.g, as in Picasso”s Guernica).

When young artists draw a scene, they often do so from a elevated or oblique angle so they can show everything they know that’s suppose to be in the picture. A number of artists also have chosen to use this approach (see, e.g., works by Pieter Bruegel and Carmen Lomas Garza). There are artists too like Richard Diebenkorn who painted his famous Ocean Park series as aerial landscapes, as though they were drawn from above in an airplane or spacecraft.

As kids get older and more perceptually aware, they notice that things overlap one another in the world and begin to understand how the use of linear perspective, a spatial technique introduced to the Western art world during the Renaissance, can convey three-dimensional space and point of view in their artwork. This way of viewing and depicting real life scenes became so entrenched in Western Art that representing the world from other points of view wasn’t even a consideration for most European artists for nearly 400 years.

In the late 19th century, the invention of the camera encouraged artists to experiment freely with points of view, rather than rely on conventional frontal views (e.g., see, e.g., works by Edgar Degas). With the advent of Cubism, artists began to abandon traditional fixed perspective in favor of showing subjects from multiple points of view (e.g., see cubist portraits by Picasso and more recently photographs and paintings by David Hockney).

Even in this abridged history of art we can see that “point of view” is a rich concept with many examples to choose from in art. In addition to those already mentioned, I have several “favorites” that I typically show when talking about point of view with students. There is MC Escher’s Inside St. Peter’s and New York with Moon by Georgia O’Keeffe. Other favorites include The Hunter and Soaring by Andrew Wyeth, The Eiffel Tower by Robert Delaunay, and Mulholland Drive: The Road to the Studio by David Hockney that shows the California landscape from multiple points of view.

Not only are there lots of examples of “point of view” in art and photography, you can take this concept across the curriculum to study its influence in other subject areas. For example, you can:

  • Explore different ways of thinking that are part of different cultures in Social Studies.
  • Examine how places are depicted in maps with different points of view in Geography.
  • Test different hypotheses for a scientific problem and explore different opinions or interpretations of issues in science.
  • Examine different interpretations of a particular literary work in Language Arts.

Don’t stop here! If you poke around the Web, there are countless examples of “point of view” at work. I did just that and you can imagine my delight when I came across this video on Vimeo titled “ant-views” by Jörg Brönnimann that is about an ant walking through the macro world.

If you teach young artists, I encourage you to set up a still life in class, show and discuss this video, and then have the youngsters draw the still life from an ant’s point of view. With older students in digital photography, you might have them look at David Hockney’s photo-collages and attempt to photograph scenes in their homes, neighborhoods, or classrooms using the same technique. If this posting has inspired you to teach a lesson on “point of view” this coming school year, I hope you’ll share some of the results here. If you have parental permission to post their children’s work online, I’d be happy to show their art work or photographs here or on my Art Junction website.

To those teachers who start school over the next few weeks: Have a great school year!